New book examines the role Ambedkar saw for socialism in the social transformation he fought for


When [BR] Ambedkar and others in the anti-caste movement drew attention to the “Brahminical philosophy” or Brahmanism the Communists were uncomfortable with in usage. For them, Brahmanism was, at best, a historical trend that in the past had sought to justify a birth-based social order, and they did not believe the term served a critical purpose in the present. By refusing to give it analytical significance, they have evaded questions related to historically specific expressions of dominant ideologies and interests in the Indian context.

For Ambedkar, their reluctance to do so was part of a more general reluctance to engage in the field of religion. His own understanding of religion…was complex and layered, but in this case he wished to draw attention to the role of the Brahmin class in perpetuating inequality and making it priestly, in and through the roles that They had historically assigned themselves: they were both religious preceptors and intellectuals.

Among other things, he questioned the details of Brahmin self-making: throughout history, Brahmins had actively ensured that no one but them had access to study and to the knowledge of the scriptures and the laws that flowed from them, so that they remained the sole guardians of these traditions of learning.

This not only made them purveyors of self-confident ideas and arguments, the terms of which they came to fix, but it also led to a static conception of knowledge, which had proved dangerously consistent: “If on any point we have come to certainty, we make no further investigation of that point; for the inquiry would be useless, or perhaps dangerous. Doubt must arise before the investigation can begin. Here, then, we have the act of doubting as the origin, or at any rate the necessary antecedent, of all progress.

Ambedkar’s point of view was not that the Brahmin class was not beset by doubt, but that, by wanting to maintain their vision of the sacred and the social as enduring and timeless, they were subverting the changes wrought by the time and history, in an always already conservative way. . Thus, each moment of historical disjunction – for example, the revolution wrought by Buddhism – was reworked as a moment of transition that only affirmed what already was. Their policy, Ambedkar warns, was a “policy of acquisition” which allowed them to hoard a spiritual and intellectual surplus by appropriating various kinds of thought for their ends, and in order to naturalize social inequalities.

Ambedkar’s grief was that in India the intellectual class had not only failed to “lead” – a term he charged with pedagogical and political resonance – but had insinuated itself into the public consciousness of a way that made her dignified and worshipful simply because she had proclaimed herself to be like this: “Hindus learn that Brahmins are Bhudevas (gods on earth)… [and] that only Brahmins can be their masters.

Indeed, the Brahmins’ claims to knowledge were not tested, nor were they expected to prove their worth. To Ambedkar, this seemed a veritable travesty of the intellectual vocation, which he argued should have “no limitation arising from any affiliation to any class or interest”.

These limitations appeared particularly acute, since the Brahmins had arranged systems of knowledge in such a gradation that knowledge of practical arts and crafts, labor and production did not have the same valence as intellectual and philosophical speculation. This meant that the productive and working classes which had the intuition of these other knowledges could not aspire to produce intellectuals.

This contrasted with societies where each stratum had its educated class and for Ambedkar it was consequential because there was “security… if not definite orientations, in the multiplicity of opinions expressed by different educated classes from different strata of society. . Thus, there was “no danger that society would be led astray or misdirected by the views of a single educated class drawn from a single class of society…” This creation of different groups of organic intellectuals does not s was not produced in India even in modern times, when learning was open, at least theoretically, to all, and much of society remained bound by Brahmin-validated worldviews.

The Indian left’s relationship to religion and its understanding of the intellectual class are of a different order. Broadly speaking, Communists saw religion as a building block of the superstructure, and therefore an engagement with the religious realm was not considered as important as struggles in the workshop or in the field. On the other hand, the many uses of religion in modern times – the politics of Gandhi, for example, or those adopted by Hindu and Muslim groups – seemed to them politically significant, as they sought to divert attention from the ” real”. economic struggle.

Faced with this paradox, the left has resorted to a somewhat ambivalent policy. For example, the Meerut defendants noted that as communists they were irreligious but did not seek to demonstrate the validity of their understanding, for “religion is not the central fact of the present situation … -religious propaganda, even if we do not exclude it…”.

They added that they seek to combat religion by “highlighting its reactionary role in political and social affairs and its historical roots in class-to-class exploitation and subordination.” However, this should not be taken to mean that they would not cooperate with people who hold religious beliefs or even preach religion. But since they held the economic and political struggle to be paramount, ‘questions relating to religion’ had to be ‘subordinate’ to it.

In practice, this meant that the CPI criticized the use of religion to promote the interests of the ruling class and propagated unity among working people based on a shared experience of economic injustice, but when they met religion in the flesh, so to speak, they realized it couldn’t be put away easily. For in many contexts the religious expressions associated with Hindu, Muslim as well as Sikh sacred and cultural narratives constituted cultural common sense, and as happened in Bengal during the agrarian struggle of the 1940s, the communists eventually by tapping into the rich repertoire of local cultural traditions. resources to communicate their political ideas and mobilize people in protest actions.

In urban India, too, religious holidays and festivals were central to the daily lives of working people, and multiple religious and cultural organizations were active in working-class neighborhoods. The communist organization had to take into account the strong interest of workers in these issues and, just as important, ensure that this did not lead to inter-religious conflicts. In many cases, unions have mitigated sectarian uses of religion, particularly the rivalry that has sometimes hampered interactions between Hindu and Muslim workers.

The left-wing understanding of Hinduism deserves consideration in this regard. Very early in his political life, SA Dange sought to approach Hinduism critically, but apart from a few sporadic articles in the Socialist, nothing came of his efforts until much later when he focused a historical lens on the distant past.

MN Roy is interested in questions of religion and philosophy and more generally in the history of ideas. During the 1920s, his criticism of religion was expressed not only with reference to the Hindu-Muslim question, but also with regard to the persistence of the religious worldview in Indian political and public life and consciousness. modern. He criticized the sanctity of Gandhi and also the tendencies in public life of the time to resort to religious rhetoric.

In the 1930s and after, in the context of the rise of fascism in Europe, he wrote extensively on the relationship between religion and political imagination in India. Roy’s critique of Hinduism, in this context, was quite similar to that of Ambedkar: he pointed out the philosophical hold exerted by Brahmanical traditions of thought on all subsequent history, the limits of Hindu moral philosophy and Buddhism’s unfortunate withdrawal from the role it tried in its heyday.

He also drew parallels between Nietzsche’s ideas and those expounded in Brahmanical texts, and pointed out how Hindu society was fertile ground for the growth of fascist thought. However, Roy did not offer a critique of the Brahmin class and its role in the modern period, although in his latter-day writings he indicted the Orthodox among the nationalists for harboring protofascist ideas.

Regarding the role of intellectuals or the Brahmin class, left-wing thinkers have speculated about intellectuals and their presence in colonial society, but not in relation to the Brahmin class. For example, in a long note on modern intellectuals, SA Dange referred rather radically to what appeared to him to be a putative social group comprising “salaried employees” who functioned as the “office machines” of capitalism in the colonial India.

Composed of office workers, clerks, journalists and teachers, this educated and self-aware group appeared as an “intellectual proletariat” but it was not yet a class, since it ” there was no solidarity at the very basis of its economic position between the two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”.

As a result, the consciousness of his constituents was shaped by “caste, community and province” and, in the event, these men could not rise above their immediate political and material demands and often limited. They wanted better wages, more Indians in government, and were prey to clever propaganda. Dange did not consider it relevant that these men were mostly Brahmins and Hindus.

Excerpted with permission from “The Prerequisites of Communism: Rethinking Revolution in Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Question of socialism in IndiaPart of the Marx, Engels, Marxisms, V Geetha, Palgrave-Macmillan/Springer International series.

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